The power of distraction… my husband and I have mastered this technique since becoming parents. We have a 15 month old baby girl with quite a personality and, as any parent will know, when “personality” becomes more a test of patience than something cute, one must resort to the tricks. We have our staples – the 85%+ success rate items – specific books, nursery rhymes and, my all time mom-trick, bubbles.
For a toddler, distraction is what keeps the chubby cheeks smiling and the parents sane.
As an adult, however, distraction is something that slowly eats away at happiness.
This statement may, at first, sound vague and, with that vague nature, you may find yourself accepting it at face value. So let me test your acceptance of it for a moment…
Distraction – the time killer
I live in Atlanta – a city that is known for its trees and its traffic. Although I am fortunate enough not to have to do a whole lot of driving, sitting behind red taillights from time to time is pretty much unavoidable.
So, what do you do to deal with this city-living annoyance? Put on some good music, listen to a podcast, catch up on current events. Sounds logical right? Distract yourself from the cloud of exhaust fumes and the task will become a whole lot more pleasant.
Here’s another example: one cannot exist as a fully functioning adult without having to stand in a certain number of lines – DMV, post office, grocery store. This mind-numbing act can, depending on the day, take hours. Of course, whipping out the cell phone and scrolling through streams of social media posts is a welcomed option to mask the grey walls and somber energy. Again, a logical and smart choice.
Why distraction does not work
From these examples, it may seem clear that distraction is there to help us get through boring, would-rather-be-anywhere-else tasks. Unfortunately, it often tends to do the opposite.
Despite its logical façade, I have come to believe that the method of distraction to improve happiness in fact depletes happiness.
Is it not true that distraction is simply a form of avoidance? And, as avoidance goes, it only works so long as we can keep the object of our avoidance out of our minds completely and forever. History has proven this much easier said than done.
Let’s use the well-known act of dieting as a way to illustrate this point. Imagine for a moment that you are seriously craving a slice of chocolate cake, but trying desperately to avoid giving into this temptation. So, you try and distract yourself with a bright, juicy carrot.
Now, I don’t know about you, but trying to distract myself from cake with a carrot is probably not going to be all that effective. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the more I use the carrot to distract from the cake, the more aware I am going to become that this carrot is definitely not chocolate cake.
In the same way, the more you try and pull yourself away from the traffic and into the world of your podcast, the more glaringly obvious the differences between the 2 are going to become. And, as a result, the aspects of traffic that annoyed you to begin with are going to become more and more glaring.
By trying to turn one thing into something else, all we are doing is highlighting how different they are.
Forget distraction. Why not try awareness?
Ok, so perhaps distraction is not the best method. What is the alternative?
There must be a reason why wise men and women over the centuries have continued to encourage the practice of living in the moment.
“Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
“When you are here and now, sitting totally, not jumping ahead, the miracle has happened. To be in the moment is the miracle.” ~ Osho
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” ~ Buddha
Could it be possible that we will actually derive more happiness and peace from being fully involved in and aware of the task at hand, rather than trying to distract from it?
I first learnt of this concept of awareness through my yoga practice. Yoga, which is a moving meditation, allows for the practice of staying in the moment – of increasing one’s awareness of where you are in each breath.
An effective yoga practice does not come from balancing successfully on one’s head or putting oneself in crazy pretzel-shaped poses. It comes from allowing oneself to be present – to feel what you are feeling when you are feeling it, and to be ok with what that might be.
Let the carrot be the carrot. It was never meant to be the cake.
It may sound crazy, but the practical application of this in our daily lives is to allow ourselves to simply sit in traffic.
Rather than distracting yourself from where you are and how long you are potentially going to be there, do the opposite – be fully aware of where you are. See the things that are there to be seen, notice the people, the smells, the warmth, the sounds. Exist within them, rather than trying to pull yourself away from them.
When you are washing the dishes, wash the dishes. Feel the warm water on your hands, notice the difference between the fluffiness of the bubbles and the hard texture of the plates. Notice the increasing wrinkles on your fingers. Exist simply within the fleeting moment of getting the dishes cleaned.
We all live far too quickly. Awareness allows us to slow down and experience our world; to simply exist for a moment without the pressure of having to turn a moment into something it was not meant to be.
The carrot was never meant to be the cake. It was meant to be a carrot – beautiful in its color, exciting in its texture, magnificent in its natural flavor. Just eat the carrot, slowly and fully aware.
A little experiment for us all
Awareness is not something that is going to be easy; after all, we do not live in a world that encourages slow, simple, in-the-moment living. Despite this, however, I encourage you to give it a try.
Wherever you are right now, take a moment to pause – look around you and see your surroundings. Are there any smells or sounds? Smell them. Hear them. Notice the textures of anything coming in contact with your body. Now turn your awareness inwards – what are you feeling? With no judgment, recognize how your body feels, what your mental state is right now. Do not try and change it, just give yourself permission to exist in it; to be ok with it. Be fully aware of the moment you are in right now.
As you move through your day or week, allow yourself to be fully aware of where you are and what you are doing. Each task or activity that you find yourself in, just be in it. There is so much to see, feel, smell, hear and taste right where you are.
The bonus is that, once you start to incorporate more awareness into your life, you may very well find yourself more at peace and content as well.